Understand, I was only a girl
living the days as they came.
I did not know I would leave…
(From “Translation of my Life,” by Elizabeth Spires, In: The Wave Maker, 2008)
We arrived back in Toronto just three days ago, weary from the weeks of preparing the house for sale, packing up our belongings, the history of much of our lives crammed into boxes, and flying across the continent with our small dog, Maggie, who was somewhat befuddled by her imprisonment in an “under the seat” Sherpa pet carrier. Despite it all, I felt a sense of quiet satisfaction, of returning to a place I’ve been visiting regularly since I left for California several years ago, a place where, I remarked to a friend, “I feel grounded.”
As the airplane flew over the Midwest and into Canada, I remembered an evening when we were visiting Toronto two years ago. I was lost in remembrance and sentimentality as my husband and I sat in a vine covered patio in the lingering daylight of long summer’s evenings here. “You can’t go home again,” my husband said. I reminded him that I’d already experienced the truth of Thomas Wolfe’s words when we’d left Canada for California many years ago. The place I once called “home” had vanished. After twenty-three years of maturing and living on Canadian soil, not only had my birthplace changed, so had I.
Even if you’ve never left a familiar place, the events of your life sometimes make you feel as if you no longer “at home” as you once were. Cancer can have that effect, so can job loss, divorce, the death of a loved one, or other unexpected and difficult life events. It’s as if you cross an invisible boundary into some new territory where what you took for granted no longer exists. Whatever golden dreams I clung to about my home state were quickly tarnished by the reality that it was not and could no longer be “home.”
I guess I have to begin by admitting
I’m thankful today I don’t reside in a country
My country has chosen to liberate… –
(From: “Thanksgiving Letter from Harry” by Carl Dennis, in: Unknown Friends, Penguin Press, 2007).
I admit the politics dominating the United States for the past year or two intensified my restlessness, no doubt influenced by the formative years of my young adulthood, when my first husband and I embarked on a self-imposed exile to Canada in protest of the Vietnam war–an event mobilizing so many of our generation. We were young and idealistic, never imagining how our sense of home would be altered and our lives changed. Twenty-three years later, married to another native Californian, I returned to my birthplace full of hopes and expectations. But like the protagonist in Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, my homecoming was laced with disappointment. What I discovered, like so many emigrants before me, was that “home” no longer existed in the ways I had imagined it.
You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, …back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory. (From: You Can’t Go Home Again, 1940)
Whatever golden dreams I clung to about my home state were quickly tarnished by the reality that it was not and could no longer be “home.” The memories that that drew me back to the West were now elusive. I felt like a stranger in the place I once called “home.”
In color photographs, my childhood house looks
fresh as an uncut sheet cake—
pale yellow buttercream, ribbons of white trim…
Half a century later, I barely recognize it
when I search the address on Google Maps
and, via “Street view,” find myself face to face—
foliage overgrown, facade remodeled and painted
a drab brown. ..
(From “9773 Comanche Ave.,” by David Trinidad. 2010
The irony is, of course, that all the years I lived in Canada, I clung tenaciously to my dream of California, whose luster intensified in my imagination. Yet all the while, Canada had quietly wrapped itself around my heart. There, I grew into adulthood. I became a wife, mother and widow. I met and married my second husband. I discovered friendships whose bonds were forged out of the steel of years of struggle and hardship, friendships that have endured despite time and distance. Canada became a part of me as surely as the California of my youth. But it took leaving it to realize how much my Canadian years had defined me.
“Home is where the heart is,” Gaius Plinius Secundas, wrote nearly two thousand years ago. Countless authors, writing about home, have echoed it since.
Goethe once wrote that all writers are homesick, that all writers are really searching for home. Being a writer is being on a constant search for where you belong.” It “comes out of a place of memory, not geography. (Mary Morris, “Looking for Home,” in: A Place Called Home: Twenty Writing Women Remember, 1996)
It comes down to change– in a place and in ourselves. Even if we’ve never left a place, all that happens to us during our lives exerts an impact, whether cancer, loss, trauma, living in another country. We are changed from these events, and it can make us feel as if we’ve suddenly become strangers to the very place we’ve considered as “home,” crossing some invisible border into strange, new territory without realizing it, a place where now, the customs and nuances are unfamiliar. We long for home, the place we once knew by heart, but discover, as Wolfe suggested, that you can never be at home as you once were.
- What does it mean to be “at home?”
- Have you returned to a once familiar place to find that you are no longer part of it as you once were? What did you learn?
- Has an experience like cancer, loss, or other life challenges made it difficult to regain the sense of belonging to a place and its people—or cemented it?
- How has “home” changed for you over the years?
- Write about home, leaving, returning or finding it.